Uber: The disruptive data-driven app that rethought how you hail a cab by providing an on-demand town-car service
Tesla Model S: A new kind of luxury: the first all-electric sports car
Mars Curiosity Rover: NASA’s mobile laboratory on the Red Panet takes space exploration to new heights
#UseMeLeaveMe: Creative agency Razorfish launched a fleet of GPS-equipped bikes that tweet their location for last year's South by Southwest Interactive festival
Scoot Networks: San Francisco’s shared network for Vespa-like scooters
Cadillac ATS: The 2013 sport sedan rethinks an old, once-stodgy brand
The jury in the transportation category had an especially difficult challenge: judging entrants as diverse as the Mars Rover, with its astonishing level of innovation but uncertain business impact, to efficiency apps like Uber that were less impressive design-wise but had the potential to hack an entire industry. And then, of course, there was the issue of Tesla, the electric vehicle that everyone agreed was a mind-blower but was still a car for the 1%. What to do? Listen in, while they argue the merits:
Gadi Amit: The ATS is a very important move for Cadillac. It’s the first time an American car company has matched German luxury. I think there’s something to cars just being able to be good and beautiful.
Karl Heiselman: I agree the Cadillac would be a better vote than Mercedes [another entrant], but they both seem to be styling stories.
Amit: Cadillac really changed its whole marketing approach, and to some degree that’s a pinnacle attempt for it to become fresh again because of its dynamics and quality. It’s an amazing achievement for Cadillac.
Amit: They were launched at a large event at SXSW. The idea was you release a vehicle out in the wild, with no controls, and rely on the public and some psychological manipulations (like giving each bike its own personality) to get it going. It had a lot of humor, and they embraced an emotional bond. Typically, transportation has been managed or created by people who are avoiding emotional connections between people and objects. They had some interesting results.
Sarah Stein Greenberg: It was more of a PR activity than a business.
Noah Robischon: Razorfish was behind it.
Amit: Sarah makes a good point regarding scalability and business. That’s a big no-no for me. In that case, the Mars Rover will be judged the same way.
Stein Greenberg: Part of the goal with these awards is hinting at what the new edge should look like. I think there’s room for both as long as we’re going to be nimble within that category.
Robischon: We’re not a magazine that only writes about a company because of its financial underpinnings; we’re more interested in the innovation factor.
Stein Greenberg: With UMLM, you see the next wave of putting individual personalities in products. Conceptually, it’s so much richer than other options. What were the learnings of the experiment?
Robischon: They made it sound successful. They said one bike got stolen or was misplaced, and it started tweeting, “Don’t be a jerk.” And there was a mini mob wondering what would happen to that bike.
Robischon: In terms of business impact, Mars Rover is igniting interest in space, competitiveness in space and going to Mars.
Amit: I don’t see it. It’s a scientific instrument for me. There’s an unbelievable amount of innovation embedded in it, and so on, but I’m having difficulties with it being in the transportation category. It’s somewhat outside the sphere to me.
Stein Greenberg: I think it’s part of the dawn of a more privatized space industry. You could make the argument that solving these kinds of problems is not just relevant to science but to the business community as well.
Amit: I’d love to touch it and play with it. But it’s not a vehicle, and I have a serious issue with applying business thinking or matrix onto scientific exploration. It’s putting scientific exploration in a very tight bind. It’s the opposite end of #UseMeLeaveMe.
Stein Greenberg: With the Rover, I felt like there was a tremendous achievement made under the most extraordinary pressure you could imagine. That was not about business impact, obviously, just in terms of how does innovation happen.
Amit: If this thing were to crash, it would be humiliating. But if the Cadillac ATS got in trouble, we would see millions of people walk home without paychecks.
Stein Greenberg: I think there are real questions now about government-funded future space exploration, and this was an important win for NASA.
Amit: I just think NASA should be outside the business discussion.
Robischon: So why are Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and Larry Page investing in space? If there’s no business impact, then why? I’m trying to reconcile that.
Amit: With Elon Musk, it’s clear he thinks he can do it way better and cheaper than a government agency. There are some institutions in life that are not supposed to go through the metrics of business. He thinks he can do it faster than NASA.
Amit: It’s an amazing car, connected to web and digital and so on. To my taste, it’s a little too big, it’s a little bland on that level. Being the first of its kind—an all-electric car that performs to that level—is really unheard of. Car companies die left and right; it’s one of the most complicated things to do. For 20, 30, 40 years, the U.S. has been berated for failing to meet the expectations of what the Germans or Japanese are doing. And it’s green! Just an unbelievable story.
Heiselman: If you read the description of it and then see it, it’s a little disappointing. But just the fact that you can wirelessly update the entire car is pretty amazing. The technical achievements are amazing.
Stein Greenberg: It’s building out a new model for the whole charging infrastructure.
Robischon: The rapid increase in demand has created lithium mining problems in terms of just getting the stuff out of the earth as quickly as possible.
Amit: The future is where things become a lot more complicated. We don’t know how the oil economy will function 20 years from now. It has no replacement. But sources for electricity are diverse. In Denmark, the local utility company is a partner. Eventually, you should be able to use the car as a giant battery in your home to power up your TV or whatever. In 30 years, things will actually change and the ability to create alternative energy is incredibly important.
Robischon: The Model S is much more accessible than the Roadster. It’s important that we’re something that’s more consumer accessible.
Amit: It’s reasonably priced. Obviously, it’s a luxury car, but $70,000 to $80,000 is not that expensive in this neighborhood.
Stein Greenberg: It seems like it’s in the sweet spot of what the awards are trying to do.
Robischon: Uber demonstrates such clear disruption, but the app itself is so much less of a pleasant design experience than the Tesla dashboard.
Heiselman: Even though Uber is small scale, it’s made a massive difference, at least in New York. It’s a small innovation that has a big impact on daily life. It’s affected lots of people’s lives. I see it as having massive impact without massive investment.
Stein Greenberg: Uber doesn’t have the most elegant design ever. But the Tesla price point does bug me in terms of what we’re rewarding. I like the possibility for a product to touch many people.
Robischon: A few years from now, this will be the norm for getting a cab.
Amit: The good thing is any taxi gets it. You’re absolutely right, there’s a revolution coming to this whole industry.
Heiselman: I think it’s great that just an app can hack an entire industry.
Stein Greenberg: I read that the number of people getting drivers' licenses is declining as a rite of passage. I lived in New Delhi, where the trajectory of everyone owning a car is so much more terrifying; the trajectory should be more about shared resources. I would want to point to those and herald that.
Amit: I don’t think Uber would survive in any rural areas. Tesla has improved, and they make strong statements that they’re going to go down in price. It’s a little bit of a philosophical idea: transportation versus cars. It’s really about, Do you take transportation as a utility, or an emotional experience of a journey? People still think of the car as the object that gives an emotional journey. That’s something we shouldn’t forget. Uber is an efficiency app, but I don’t know how awesome an experience it is.
Heiselman: I think it’s an awesome experience when I think about hours looking for a cab in San Francisco, or walking miles or staying at a friend’s house. It doesn’t have to be an either/or. Maybe on the weekend you rent a car, and then you have an experience.
Amit: I have the Uber app, and I used it once or twice, but it didn’t blow my mind. I could have picked up the phone and called a limo just as well.
Heiselman: In a world where cars are all cartoons of themselves and pumped up on steroids, Scoot has a sweetness to it. It’s a technology using a simpler, lower tech. It’s entirely affordable.
Robischon: I love the phone-based approach. To make it so central was really fascinating.
Heiselman: Even just down to the video, it had a sweetness to it.
Amit: It’s very much a Zipcar model. I don’t think the level of innovation matches the others.
Heiselman: I would never design the objects the way they are, but it was quite nice to see someone have an overall expression and projection unlike most of the cars. All of them take themselves so seriously in some way that feels out of touch, whereas Scoot has a humility.